Friday, October 7, 2011

The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize and Civil Society Activism

Kudos to the Nobel Peace Prize committee for selecting three women activists from Africa and the Middle East.  They are President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, the Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkol Karman, a pro-democracy campaigner in Yemen.  Their selection turns the spotlight on the pivotal role of women in promoting development, democracy and peace.  But I also like the committee's decision because it shows that activism comes in all shapes and forms.  One women is an elected leader, another the leader of the Women for Peace movement uniting Christian and Muslim women in Liberia, and the last the founder of Women Journalists Without Chains, a civil society advocacy organization in Yemen.

I also like the fact that civil society activists got much of the credit.  Women like Gbowee and Karman did not just burst onto the scene, but have been building their organizations and movements for years.   According to the New York Times, Gbowee's Women for Peace was started in 2002, while Karman's Women Journalists Without Chains was established in 2007.  Their achievements are the result of years of patient, determined, brave activism.  As Thorbjorn Jagland, the head of the committee, noted the 2011 prize recognized those “who were there long before the world’s media was there reporting.”

There are many civil society activists like this in China -- women and men alike -- who have yet to get the attention of the Nobel Peace Prize committee or the international media, but deserve more of our attention for their work. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A View from the Top: will upcoming policy changes make it easier for NGOs?

Recently, CDB (English) has created a special section, A View from the Top, that monitors changes in official thinking and actions on China's civil society.  For the section, I scan media reports and select reports that I think are significant and give us some insight into what is going on in the black box that we call the Chinese government. 

Just looking over the reports listed, you can see that over this past year there have been multiple reports suggesting that new policies are forthcoming making it easier for NGOs to register and fundraise.  But there are also reports showing that many difficulties remain.  One of them is an interview with Zheng Gongcheng of the National People's Congress Standing Committee.  Mr. Zheng discusses the obstacles holding up the Charity Law which was originally expected to be passed in 2009.  I made some comments on this article in another listserve, and am posting them here.

 "I don't think there's much that is new in this interview with Zheng Gongcheng.   What he does confirm is that there are multiple reasons holding up the Charity Law, as well as other regulations being revised by MOCA like the registration and management regs for social organizations. 

One of these is disagreement among policymakers over the content of these regulations.  One contentious issue that Zheng touches on is whether charity organizations (he seems to use this term instead of social organization) should have to get a supervising unit (yewu zhuguan bumen) in order to register.  This is an old issue that has been debated for at least the last 10 years, and raises concerns among more conservative, security-minded policymakers who don't want to give charity organizations too long of a leash.  Zheng interestingly takes a clear stand on this by saying he thinks a supervising unit violates the independent legal nature of a charity organization. 

This disagreement becomes particularly intense when the laws/regs are sent to the NPC and State Council where other departmental interests insert themselves.  I think MOCA realizes the regulatory environment for charity organizations is far from perfect and is committed to improving the environment, as we can see from the various initiatives they've taken in the past few years to revise the regs, and issue various other measures including the approval of local experiments in Beijing and other parts of the country.  And I think the debates over issues like the nature of charity, fundraising and registration that were renewed after the 2008 earthquake, and the most recent media reports on problems in the Red Cross and other GONGOs, have put more pressure on MOCA to improve the regulatory environment.

But MOCA is a relatively weak ministry and when other departments raise concerns, it lacks the clout to get the necessary support.  MOCA's case would be helped if a powerful leader took an interest in their cause and championed it, but I don't see this happening, especially in the run up to the 18th Party Congress next year.  Wen Jiabao perhaps, but he seems to be relegated to the sidelines?  So I'm not hopeful at least for the short term. 

Another reason for the delay has to do with consideration of how these laws and regs may affect other laws and regs in the pipeline. Zheng mentions the laws related to social security and social assistance and says that they might have to precede the Charity Law.  MOCA also has to coordinate and get the support of other departments that would be involved in the implementation of these laws and regs.  So in addition to security concerns, there are concerns about the timing and implementation of the laws and regs.  This is also tied to the local experiments going on in various areas of registration and fundraising.  Zheng alludes to this and implies that allowing local experiments and regulations to move ahead of the national level ones may be the preferred and realistic course of action given the logjam at the national level. 

I'm interested to see if the recent debates and revelations of scandals in various GONGOs will get the attention of the leadership.  It seems the debate over fundraising, charity and other related issues is being ratcheted up, as exemplified by the media scrutiny in the last few months.  I'm struck by all the reports of charity scandals that have come out recently, and can't recall this level of scrutiny in the past.  We'll have to see if anything comes out of this growing public awareness and scrutiny."